Billy Graham published a book called Nearing Home.
He writes: ‘Old age is not for sissies! I never thought I would live to be this old. No one ever taught me how I ought to live in the years before I die. I wish they had because I am an old man now and, believe me, it’s not easy’.1
Care of the elderly is a huge issue and is always in the news. There are over 800,000 people with dementia in the UK and this figure is rising rapidly. Dementia is a progressive, terminal disease that causes problems with memory, communication and individuals cannot live without care and support. Many older people in care homes feel lonely, forgotten and without hope. We need to provide regular church services, prayer and pastoral care in a new and dynamic way.
The questions that get asked are: If people can’t remember their family, how can they remember God? Is God still interested in us when we are old and frail and can he make a difference? How do we pray with someone who has dementia?
Many of us find this so difficult because there may be other people in the room and that can be distracting, or perhaps we don’t know where to begin. Finding a fail-safe formula to follow to make a connection can seem daunting. One of the common difficulties is that we often feel inadequate. Eric Alexander writes that we all have this deep sense of inadequacy because prayer is intensely personal.2 There can also be a perception that you can’t have much of a reciprocal relationship with someone with dementia.3 When we go in to take a church service we are unaware of how each individual person is that day — only God knows that.
Prayer bridges the gap
We have to be prepared for brutal honesty when older people tell us very personal things. God brings hope and helps us put ourselves in the shoes of the person — what is it like for them? No one ever wants to end up in a nursing home! When we read the gospels, we see that Jesus made a life-changing difference to everyone he met. When we go in with God, this gives us the courage to balance the scales of dealing with dementia with love and compassion. We are links in a chain and prayer bridges the gap to enable people to think about the love of God. We need to be ready for these precious opportunities when they arise.
When we pray alongside someone, we acknowledge God — and realise that many things in life are outside our control. We address God — and ask for help in that situation; God sees the all the circumstances. Psalm 139.1-2 reminds us: ‘You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar’. Knowing that God can just step into that person’s life right there and then is amazing! We don’t have to be eloquent — just sitting with the person, saying a short prayer is the place to start. The Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 can be said together and is always appreciated.
God has not forgotten
It is so important to take time to chat and pray with the residents after the service. Earlier this year we met a lovely couple. The lady had just come into the nursing home and she was very distressed and disorientated and her husband was finding it hard to cope. We spent time praying for them after the service and they were both quite emotional. The next time we went in, the lady was calmer and much more settled. When we spoke to them, the gentleman said he had ‘not thought much about God’. They were both so delighted when we said that ‘God had not forgotten about them’. It has been remarkable to see how coming to the services has really been a comfort to them.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed up the power of prayer, writing: ‘What prayer does is to fill the lungs of the soul with the oxygen of the Holy Spirit and his power’.4
When God answers prayer, our faith is always increased. However, watching someone with dementia fade away is heartbreaking. The pain and sadness weighs so heavily upon our shoulders and it is almost as if our life stops too. In these dark times, it’s difficult to hand over to God. We are not promised that we will never have difficult circumstances, but God always answers prayer. In Romans 8.26, the apostle Paul reminds us how the Holy Spirit pleads on our behalf: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words can’t express’.
You can’t have prayer without pastoral care because we have to be willing to take the time to listen. When you visit the nursing home regularly this helps to become a trusted point of contact. So often people don’t know who to turn to and a compassionate listening ear is a godsend when circumstances are tough.
Finding new life
Older people should not have to wait to the last minute to talk about salvation and prepare for death. It is eternally important for people to find new life and hope in Jesus Christ. Everyone needs to experience forgiveness and have the chance to restore broken relationships. Anger, grief or disappointment impacts the mind and spirit and takes a physical toll, causing depression and feelings of abandonment.5 People with dementia can simply lose the will to live because of these unresolved issues from the past.6 However, not having the chance to tell someone you love them before they pass away always leaves family members struggling with feelings of regret. Acceptance is always the first step to restoration because prayer shines the love of God into difficult situations.
Before we go
Developing a vibrant prayer ministry also means praying before we go into the care environment. If we’re honest, prayer can sometimes be the last resort instead of the first thing we do. Even though we know that God answers prayer, we often suffer from spiritual amnesia — is God going to help this time? When we see the ravages of dementia we may be tempted to think ‘it’s too late for them’!
However, on so many occasions, we’ve met people with significant communication problems who want prayer. Just a few weeks ago, a lady with advanced dementia in the nursing home needed prayer. On our next visit, she was just bursting to tell us that she was feeling so much better. Right through the Bible, God’s love is radical — God is far greater and there is always hope with God. Everyone wants to experience love, joy, peace, compassion and patience. Showing compassion can help ease for a moment the overwhelming sense of vulnerability experienced by those living with death. We can provide this spiritual care by simply acknowledging the power of God and thereby demonstrating the sanctity of life.
Beth Laing is a research associate in dementia at University of Sterling and part of Ochil Hills Community Church, Dollar.
1. Graham, B. (2011). Nearing Home: Life, faith and finishing well. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2. Alexander, E.J. (2012). Prayer: A Biblical Perspective. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 3. Wilson, N. (2013). ‘Pastoral care in nursing homes.’ Evangelicals Now, May, 2013. 4. Sargent, T. (2007). Gems from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Milton Keynes: Paternoster. 5. Stanley, C. (2012). The effects of unforgiveness. Christian Post. Accessed at: http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-effects-of-unforgiveness-84769/#GDkeQwITbGR42zVC.99 6. O’Hara, D. (2010). ‘Hope — the neglected common factor.’ Therapy Today, November, 2010.